NewsLocal News


Small ski areas that bounced back from closures serve as inspiration for Cuchara Mountain Park

Lift-served skiing at Cuchara Mountain Park is expected to return this winter for the first time since 2000
Cuchara Mountain Park Lift 4_Stephanie Butzer/Denver7
Posted at 8:31 AM, Feb 13, 2023
and last updated 2023-02-13 10:31:10-05

HUERFANO COUNTY, Colo. — When ski areas close down, they typically close for good. But as one small mountain in Colorado prepares to reopen for the first time since 2000, it is using guidance from other ski areas that trudged along the same unpredictable path.

Cuchara Mountain Park — called Panadero Ski Area when it first opened in 1981 — closed in 2000 after leadership issues drove it into the ground. Like so many other small ski areas, that could have been the end of Cuchara skiing. But the Panadero Ski Corporation nonprofit has spearheaded the effort to reopen it and is confident its Lift 4 will be running by next winter.

As it claws its way back, it has leaned on the experience of Antelope Butte in Shell, Wyoming, and Ascutney Mountain in West Windsor, Vermont — two places that have undergone a similar rise, fall and unlikely rise again.

READ MORE: The Cuchara comeback: Abandoned ski area in southern Colorado is closer than ever to a revival

"Both of them have an impact of like, hey, it's been done before, it's possible," said Will Pirkey, who is on the Panadero Ski Corporation board. "And just that inspiration of, we're not doing something that's completely, completely new."

He noted that the span of time between closure and reopening is much longer at Cuchara than the other two ski areas.

"But really, it's kind of the same general story of a community-based ski hill that closed," Pirkey continued. "The community was devastated, wanted to reopen, and worked with the nonprofit model to get it reopened."

'A lot of sweat, blood and tears': Antelope Butte Mountain Recreation Area

Let's start with the seven-hour drive from Denver to northern Wyoming. About 25 miles south of the Montana state line along US Highway 14 is the Antelope Butte Mountain Recreation Area.

Today, the ski area, which is on U.S. Forest Service (USFS) land, has three lifts and more than 1,000 feet of vertical skiable terrain across 500 acres. It is a family-friendly ski area that encourages kids to explore the outdoors.

It opened in 1960 and ran for 44 successful years. But in March 2004, a drought and personal issues drove the owner to close skiing at Antelope Butte, said Ryan White, board president of the Antelope Butte Foundation.

The USFS put the area up for sale in 2008, but despite interest, nobody bit. Two years later, the USFS decided to put it into a salvage sale.

Antelope Butte Foundation

But in August 2011, the nonprofit Antelope Butte Foundation formed to revitalize the area and launched the Open Antelope Butte Campaign. After five years, the foundation had secured the assets on the ski hill, including the lodge, lifts, garage and maintenance shop.

By 2018, it had reopened with limited operations and a yurt in place of the lodge, which was still under construction.

Antelope Butte Foundation

"We were still fundraising for it, but people didn't care," White said. "I mean, they showed up with barbecues. They barbecued out of the back of their car. You still see it today — people still do it. There's tailgating going on everywhere in the parking lot."

The following winter, it reopened with all the lifts running, having been approved for a five-year yearround Forest Service Operating Permit. It's now working on a master development plan to secure a 20-year permit.

By January 2022, it had reopened the lodge.

"It's been a lot of work," White said. "A lot of sweat, blood and tears. But we're working through it. There's always challenges every day."

photo by Lisa Kunkel

White said the journey to reopening was a roller coaster — something the Panadero Ski Corporation in Colorado knows all too well.

"But we've followed them all along. We've been peering around the corner, seeing what they're doing," White said of the Colorado ski area. "We do watch them and we are paying attention to what they're doing. And we're rooting for them."

Pirkey said the Panadero Ski Corporation often spoke with Jeff Grant, the former president of the Antelope Butte Foundation.

"We've had multiple phone calls and just kind of picked his brain a little bit and some of his advice and suggestions and recommendations and all that," Pirkey said. "Jeff can be kind of a sounding board sometimes when we're like, 'Hey, we're in this situation.' He's like, 'Oh, this is what we did.' And so they've been really helpful (in) helping shine a path forward for us."

Even though Antelope Butte has been open now for a few years, it still has plenty of work to do. White said they've had to move past the celebrations of reopening and are now working through the daily obstacles that come with running a small ski area.

"But it's a challenge, because now we have to deliver on a product," he explained. "We can only ride that horse of we-reopened-a-ski-area for so long, because if they go up and the product is not good, they're not going to come back."

photo by Lisa Kunkel

Along the way, there have also been plenty of wins. Antelope Butte has attracted guests from all over the country and even overseas. Visitors, who are often treated to barely any lift lines, joke about the "lengthy" lines when they reach three to five minutes.

And perhaps best of all, it has stayed affordable — a daily pass is $54 and a five-day pass is $235 for adults.

"You're seeing a resurgence of small ski areas because people don't want to wait in line," White said. "People don't want to pay $250 for a lift ticket. They can't afford it. A family of four — you can't do it unless you make really good money."

Antelope Butte is where White learned to ski. It's where his daughter learned to ski. Despite its near-demise, it became a passion project that White, amid many others, are determined to continue.

"When you sit down on a run, and you just listen and you hear everybody's hooting and hollering and screaming and having fun with their friends — that's what makes you forget about the long days and arguments in the meetings and, you know, all that stuff. That's what really makes a difference."

photo by Lisa Kunkel

'We're living proof that it can happen': Ascutney Mountain

Across the country, about 2,000 miles from Denver, is another ski area that came back from edge of total demise.

Ascutney Mountain in West Windsor, Vermont offers 26 acres of skiable terrain and a 1,800-foot T-bar takes guests up about 450 feet up the slope.

The mountain first opened for recreation in the winter of 1935 with the 5,400-foot-long Mount Ascutney Trail. It grabbed the attention of locals and in 1946, they worked to get lift-powered skiing on the mountain. For a couple years, the rope tow operations went smoothly, and the mountain had night skiing and snowcat-served skiing.

It was one of the first ski areas in the state to have snowmaking, said native Vermonter Glenn Seward, who is on the board of Ascutney Outdoors, the nonprofit that worked to bring the skill mountain back to life.

Ascutney Outdoors

"You know, it's widely recognized I think, throughout the industry, that smaller ski operations like us feed new skiers into the industry, basically," Seward said. "So, you know, all these little ski areas really provide a valuable service to those, you know, those larger ski areas that are always looking for new skiers."

Seward worked at Ascutney for about 18 years before it closed, ending his ski industry career as operations and facilities director in 1985.

"It went through, you know, five or six ownerships, ultimately ending in 2010, when the mountain was foreclosed on," he said. "This was after some pretty difficult years, financially."

It didn't close quietly. The community of West Windsor was horrified and went into "a tailspin," Seward recalled. It had grown since the 1950s into a ski town and was dependent on all the activity guests brought in. All of a sudden, that had all dried up.

Property values dropped, people left and taxes increased for those who stayed. Jobs were lost and revenue in the area plummeted.

"So there were pretty desperate times really," Seward said. "I would say it was really a low point, for lack of a better term, in the town's history."

Ascutney Outdoors

But the revival efforts began the same year it closed. Residents were eager to find a solution.

"So, we had multiple meetings of interested parties, and we came up with, you know, what seemed at the time, just an insane idea of buying the mountain," he said.

The town owned a 1,300-acre forest that abutted the mountain, but the group wanted to acquire the 469 acres on the mountain. That was completed in 2015. The nonprofit Ascutney Outdoors was created to manage the mountain.

"The community was just, you know, jubilant," Seward said. "I mean, all of a sudden, we had skiing back. It was pretty basic at the time — it was nothing more than a 900-foot rope tow. But nonetheless, we had skiing, which was a huge step forward."

Ascutney Outdoors
Ascutney Outdoors in Brownsville, Vt. offers a T bar for skiing, snowboarding, backcountry skiing and tubing. Caleb Kenna for the New York Times

Today, residents — all volunteers — handle everything from lift operations to ticket sales through Ascutney Outdoors. A lift ticket is just $20 for an adult and $10 for a youth. The nonprofit hopes that with such low rates, new skiers will feel more comfortable coming to the slopes.

While Pirkey said the Panadero Ski Corporation hasn't been in direct contact with Ascutney, they have watched the progress from afar.

As the Panadero Ski Corp has learned over the years, Seward said Ascutney's core group of volunteers were the crux of the project and their continued work is the reason the mountain is still operating.

"You know, I will say, from personal experience, it's tremendously time consuming," Seward said. "And you really have to be dedicated for the cause to make it happen. But we're living proof that it can happen. You just have to put the time and effort into it. So I wish them the best of luck moving forward."

The proof is on the slopes

Having these two models not only gave the Panadero Ski Corporation confidence moving forward, but also faith that the process can work, despite the many hardships.

Pirkey said they proved that operating a small, community-based ski hill focused on community and affordability is possible.

"So it really just gives you that motivation to keep going because you see it's been done," he said. "I think we'd still be doing this project, even if we didn't know about these other ones, but it's just very comforting to know that it can be done in those hard spots.... We'll get it done. So, it really just keeps us on track."

D7 follow up bar 2460x400.jpg
The Follow Up
What do you want Denver7 to follow up on? Is there a story, topic or issue you want us to revisit? Let us know with the contact form below.